Sunday, July 14, 2013

All Race, All The Time

Charles Peters, closing out an angry, profane rant about the acquittal of George Zimmerman, finally got it right at the end when he quotes John Dos Passos:  "All right. We are two nations."

Of course, that nation isn't just white and black, or white and minority, or white and "people of color."  It is more complicated than that, as recognized by a presidential candidate five years ago who urged "Do not turn away from these great struggles before us. Do not give up on the causes that we have fought for. Do not walk away from what's possible, because it's time for all of us, all of us together, to make the two Americas one."

In retrospect, that candidate never had a chance, given that he was competing, as someone strategically disadvantaged by race and gender, against two candidates, either of whom was out to make history.   And, against all odds, he wasn't dividing the nation strictly by race.

Obviously, race is virtually nowhere in American society irrelevant, and the criminal justice system is no exception, though attorneys from both the state and the defendant last night told us otherwise. Nonetheless, Peters seems quite obsessed when he writes  

Some night very soon, if he so chooses, George Zimmerman can load his piece, tuck it into the back of his pants, climb into his SUV, and drive around Sanford, Florida looking for a_ _ _ _ _ _ _ and _ _ _ _ _ _ _ punks who are walking through neighborhoods where he, George Zimmerman, defender of law and order, doesn't think they belong. He can drive around Sanford, Florida and check out anyone who is dressed in such a manner as might frighten the average citizen who has been fed a daily diet of "Scary Black Kids" by their local news and by their favorite radio personalities, and who is dressed in such a manner as might seem inappropriate to their surroundings as determined by George Zimmerman, crimebuster. He can drive around Sanford, Florida until he spots an a_ _ _ _ _ _ or a f_ _ _ _ _ _  punk and then he can get out of his SUV, his piece tucked into the back of his pants, and he can stalk the a_ _ _ _ _ _ or the f_ _ _ _ _ _ punk, the one who is in the wrong neighborhood, or who is dressed inappropriately, at least according to George Zimmerman, protector of peace. If the a_ _ _ _ _ _, or the f_ _ _ _ _ _ punk, turns around and objects to being stalked -- or, worse, if the a_ _ _ _ _ _ , or the f_ _ _ _ _ _ punk, decides physically to confront the person stalking him -- then George Zimmerman can whip out the piece from the back of his pants and shoot the a_ _ _ _ _ _, or the f_ _ _ _ _ _ punk, dead right there on the spot. This can happen tonight. That is now possible. Hunting licenses are now available and it's open season on a_ _ _ _ _ _ _, f_ _ _ _ _ _ punks, and kids who wear hoodies at night in neighborhoods where they do not belong, at least according to George Zimmerman, defender of law and order, crimebuster, and protector of the peace, because that is what American society has told George Zimmerman, and all the rest of us, is the just outcome of what happened on one dark and rainy night in February of 2012

Peters, in full hysterical mode, spelled out the full profanity in each case.   But both the virulence and the misguided nature (to be probed in a later post) of much of the response demonstrates how difficult it will be "to make the two Americas one."   We ought, furthermore, to recall the context of the encounter, described a month after the shooting by Amy Green in The Daily Beast:  

In attempting to understand Zimmerman’s actions, much attention has been called to the fact that Martin was black, and to the frequency with which Zimmerman, who is half-white and half-Hispanic, called police in the years leading up to the shooting. Twin Lakes is almost 50 percent white, with Hispanic and African-American populations of about 20 percent each.

Conversations with several residents, however, suggest that Zimmerman’s calls reflect a wider feeling of concern and distrust in the community. For years, Twin Lakes residents had been on edge—demonstrated by their decision last September to start a neighborhood-watch organization, which was initiated by Zimmerman himself. The burglary of Olivia Bertalan’s home was just one of at least eight reported over the previous 14 months—several of which, neighbors said, involved young black men. On Feb. 26, the odds were stacked against Martin: he was a young black man in a neighborhood that was feeling besieged by crime and blaming it—fairly or not—on people who looked like him.

Three weeks before Martin’s death another Twin Lakes resident arrived home to discover a kitchen window open and a laptop and gold necklaces missing. Two witnesses said they saw a young black man standing nearby, but they did not see the man break into the home, according to a police report. One witness said he believed it was the same man who had stolen his bike. The next day officers responding to a call confronted three black men and one white man on bikes near the neighborhood. The same witnesses identified one of the men as the same man they saw near the burglarized home. The officers found the laptop in the man's backpack.

Last July a rental car was stolen from one townhome along with the car keys, which were inside on a dining room table. The resident awoke in the morning to discover her sliding glass door open. The car was eventually found abandoned. In August a PlayStation and videogames were stolen from another townhome. In September someone vandalized a townhome under construction. In December someone broke into a foreclosed townhome, stopped up a toilet and started the water running. According to a police report, the water flooded the bedroom and caused drywall in the garage to collapse.

During the months before he shot Martin, Zimmerman called police about once a month, said Kim Cannaday, spokeswoman for the Seminole County Sheriff's Office. He called about suspicious-looking people in the neighborhood, many whom, like Martin, he identified as black. Zimmerman also called to report a neighbor's garage door open and children playing in the street, asking that he remain anonymous so as not to offend other neighbors.

In all, police have records of 46 calls from Zimmerman since 2004, both to 911 and a nonemergency number, sometimes for reasons as mundane as reporting a pothole blocking a road, as he did in 2005. The sheriff’s office released the records after Sanford police detectives requested them as part of the investigation into Martin’s death, Cannaday said.

Cannaday said he did not believe that the number of calls Zimmerman made to police was itself concerning.

"I would not consider it excessive," Cannaday said. "That's typically what we encourage, is if anyone in the community sees something out of the ordinary, concerning, or suspicious, we would want for them to call."

Olivia Bertalan said it was George Zimmerman's wife, in fact, who helped her to identify the burglar who stole her laptop. Bertalan didn't know Zimmerman well, but said he was helpful and "sweet" after the crime, inviting her to call them anytime if she felt afraid or needed anything.

Officers eventually identified the person who burglarized Bertalan's home as a neighbor. He was arrested but released because, as Bertalan understood it, he was a minor. Both he and the other man were black, according to the police report.

After the crime, Bertalan said, she was afraid to come home and find things missing. She and her husband got a dog, as advised by police.

"There was definitely a sense of fear in the neighborhood after all of this started happening, and it just kept on happening. It wasn't just a one-time thing. It was every week," she said. "Our next-door neighbor actually said if someone came into his yard he would shoot him. If someone came into his house he would shoot him. Everyone felt afraid and scared."

The crime and fear surrounding it do not justify the horrific killing of February 26, 2012, nor do they indicate whether George Zimmerman was in fact guilty of second degree murder or manslaughter.   But neither does Peters' remark that   

Zimmerman could have been back, standing his post, watching for a_ _ _ _ _ _ _ and f_ _ _ _ _ _  punks, the very next night, according to the original assessment made by local law enforcement. Instead, people who filled George Zimmerman's fevered definition of a_ _ _ _ _ _ _ and f_ _ _ _ _ _ punks roamed free, wearing their hoodies at will.

Ultimately, George Zimmerman was to have been found guilty or not guilty according to the law of the state of Florida which, unfortunately, is confusing, a factor which seems to have escaped almost everyone's attention (though not hers).  He could not be let off on basis of the fear sweeping the neighborhood, though it provides a glimpse into motivation.  Nor should he have been convicted on the basis of perceived (and unproven) racist inclinations, his interest in police work, or hoodie-phobia.

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